Sunday, 23 May 2010


1111 Lincoln Road, by Herzog & de Meuron. Image taken from the Flickr stream of and used under a Creative Commons licence.

At a symposium on "Ballardian Architecture" at the Royal Academy a week ago, journalist and Ballard expert Chris Hall said something rather intiguing about Herzog & de Meuron's 1111 Lincoln Road. Lincoln Road is a multistorey car park in Miami - Edwin Heathcote covered it well for icon in issue 081. Hall suggested that Lincoln Road could be considered "the first post-Ballardian building in the sense that they've taken a liminal structure of a car park and made an art work out of it".

This remark was very striking, not least because it's an excellent description of Lincoln Road. Rather than decorating or attempting to hide the multistorey car park, Herzog & de Meuron have made it highly assertive and expressive. It is beautiful and dramatic; in the words of Herzog, it's pure Miami Beach, because it's "all muscle without cloth". "Modern. Fast. Adaptable. Sensual," promises the website (emphasis mine). Muscular, unclothed, sensual, it wants to be sexy.

A sexy concrete multi-storey car park! What could be more Ballardian, eh? Except, as Hall noticed, this isn't really a Ballardian building - it's a post-Ballardian building. It's not a subconcious expression of the kind of pathologies that Ballard explored - instead, there's something janglingly concious about it. It's a place that knows exactly what it's doing. Alongside the car park, the complex has boutiques (Nespresso, Taschen), offices, art installations, offices and apartments (including one belonging to the developer - shades of Anthony Royal, to borrow Hall's observation). These functions "activate" the car park space, stitching it back into the city, dragging it out of alienation and liminality. (Not a new or unique strategy, just an under-used one - Owen Luder included a rooftop restaurant in the Trinty car park in Gateshead). But this is not a mixed-use complex that includes a car park - the car park is to the fore, out in front, the building's centrepiece. As well as regenerating a run-down part of Miami, the ambition is to regenerate and rehabilitate the whole car-park typology. Lincoln Road confronts the architectural and cultural hang-ups about multi-storey car parks head on. It is unafraid of being "Ballardian". It is unafraid full stop. It is a bold, glamorous, 21st-century building.

This success is very heartening, and gives us a chance to look forward to what else might be achieved with "post-Ballardian" architecture. There is great value in revisiting a large number of highly useful but allegedly "discredited" typologies - multi-storey car parks, elevated motorways, streets in the sky, megastructures. We should be rescuing them from blanket dismissal and looking afresh at their advantages and their potential success; re-examining what was exciting, sexy, positive about them. If their built manifestations failed, we should be unpicking why they failed, rather than simply discarding the typology. My colleague Owen Hatherley's book Militant Modernism makes excellent progress in this direction, and is perhaps a post-Ballardian architect set text. I realise in retrospect that I was indulging in PoBa re-examination when I tried to describe what I like about Beech Street in an earlier post. The importance of this line of inquiry has also occurred to me in connection with a long-planned but still largely formless post on Steven Holl and megastructures. Proceeding typology by typology, a systematic look at the potential for post-Ballardian architecture could make for a stimulating series of posts - or even the basis of a book. It's certainly worth further thought.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Ruins of Oxford Street

Old advert revealed by Crossrail works on Oxford Street. Image taken from the Flickr stream of John O'Shea and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Like space, London is curved. It sits in a bowl-shaped valley, curving it one way, and the river adds its own magnificent curves. This curvature throws up unexpected views - you find yourself in west London looking at the City with south London somehow in the way. These surprise alignments are probably the reason the city is such a super-locus for the psychogeographers. They are also an essential element of the city's guile. Even familiar places can suddenly look at you with a new face. Wait, you can see the Telecom Tower from here? But ...

On Saturday, I went for a long stroll, walking an indirect route from the Royal Academy (where I had been attending a symposium on JG Ballard and architecture) to Centre Point. Nearing Oxford Street, I remembered a DVD I wanted to buy, and decided to pop into HMV.

I was surprised to find that it no longer exists - it's among the shops being demolished to make way for Crossrail. I've been through the area on numerous occasions recently, but never really took in the extent of the works; so surprising was the removal of HMV that I took a walk around the nearby streets to see how the city had changed. The entrance to Tottenham Court Road Tube station on the south side of Oxford street is now a faintly absurd toy - I never before appreciated what a bad match the 1980s perspex-looking porte cochere was with the decorative stonework around it. Now the surrounding building has been removed, leaving just the stone arch and the porch, it's a outstanding architectural oddity. An old painted advert, for Veglio's restaurant, has been revealed (more on old adverts, "ghost signs") in a forthcoming post about Gavin Stamp's Lost Cities). Standing just off the Charing Cross Road, I saw a striking brutalist building that was completely new to me - except that it wasn't new to me, it was the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road, seen for the first time from the south, and at an unaccustomed distance.

My grandmother was in London during the Blitz. She remember how strange it was to have the city transformed nightly, with new views opened up. I'm struck by how much of our image of the city is made up not of the buildings that we can see, but what they obscure - they city behind the city.

Updated 25 May to add:

The Festival of Britain opens new views of London. "This chaos made a vantage point for London to admire her finest profile; visible before to few, seen by fewer, the 'North bank from the South' is now a sightseer's dream." Image from, via Things.

Everything That's Ever Happened To Me Happened Right Here

The Market Estate, Islington, days before its demolition. From my Flickr Photostream.

The most moving thing I've read in weeks, courtesy of the London Evening Standard. This piece, a look inside London's gang culture by Tony Thompson, is largely the Standard's usual lawnorder handwringing and scaremongering. But, touring the ganglands of Croydon with a young guide called Radar, Thompson captures an amazing moment:

"I love my ends," he says, his voice thick with emotion. "I can't explain it. People say, 'How can you love a street or a block of flats?' but it's where I come from. It's my roots. Everything that's ever happened to me happened right here. No one can take that away from me, ever. I won't let anyone take it away."

Beautiful. This is civic pride - an earnest attempt to take pride in something, at any rate. It puts a new complexion on the gangs and territorial gang warfare as systems of belonging. And Radar's love for his neighbourhood seems infinitely more genuine than a political establishment that dishes out ideas like Britishness days, "community payback" and national youth service. There's something here that's potentially a powerful force for good, a voice being drowned out by foghorn demonisation that goes almost unchallenged in the media.

(An aside: Radar is/was a member of the "Don't Say Nothing" gang which, by a strange coincidence, I've mentioned in print before, while reviewing China Mieville's book The City and the City.)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Mo' Moses Mo' Problems

Confirmed sighting: I'm in issue #215 of Edge, which has just come out, taking about SimCity 4, urbanism, Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. It's a long piece that takes some of the ideas expressed in this rambling blog post from a while back and expresses them rather more cogently. I express some of the pleasure that comes from playing a game badly, deliberately creating problems for oneself, so there's something to fix down the line.

An alternative approach is something like this: Magnasanti, a dystopian megalopolis created by exploiting the game mechanics of the earlier SC3000 to their maximum. (I'm grateful to Jim Rossignol, who first showed me the video.) There's an interesting interview with Magnasanti's creator here.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Learning From Phoenix Nights

Lately I've been watching Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights on DVD. I had completely forgotten that it has a nice little summation of the road-sign-building relationship described by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour in Learning From Las Vegas. The scene in question starts at 0:35s.